Shuck and Jive

Sunday, February 28, 2010

I Want To Be An Ancestor--A Sermon

I Want to be An Ancestor
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 28th, 2010
Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 15:1-12; 17-18

Luke 13:31-35

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be meeting in Minneapolis in a few months. Once every two years Presbyterians gather to celebrate, lament, and make decisions in a revelry of Roberts Rules of Order.

Among the many issues that divide us, the General Assembly will consider a report from the Special Committee to Prepare a Comprehensive Study Focused on Israel/Palestine. This committee was formed in 2008. It has not yet finished its report but has made some recommendations. According to the Presbyterian News Service:
The report affirms historic PC(USA) positions — an immediate cessation of violence by both sides, an immediate freeze on the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied territory, the relocation of Israel’s “separation barrier” to the internationally recognized 1967 border, a shared status for Jerusalem, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and immediate resumption of negotiations toward a two-state solution.
The report also calls on the U.S. government to end its acquiescence in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and to
“employ the strategic use of influence and the withholding of financial and military aid in order to enforce Israel’s compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement this past Monday saying that the
“adoption of this poisonous document by the Presbyterian Church will be nothing short of a declaration of war on Israel and her supporters.”
The statement from the Wiesenthal Center got results. This past week during meetings in Louisville, Presbyterian leaders were flooded with over 2,700 emails protesting this committee and its report, even as the report has yet to be completed.

We are warming up for another thrilling General Assembly.

Meanwhile Jesus sits on the hill weeping over Jerusalem, like a mother hen who
“longs to gather her brood under her wings.”
Sadly, as usual, no one is willing to be gathered.

Today we read the story of Abraham who is promised descendants as many as the stars in the sky. YHWH tells him:
‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’
Of course the Girgashites and the Kadmonites and today, the Palestinians, might raise an objection. Hey, how do we fit into this great plan?

In the Gospel of John, the following words are put on the lips of Jesus:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”
Of course, the Hindus, pagans, the doubters and the descendants of Abraham might raise an objection. Hey, how do we fit into this great plan?

In the Qur’an we read:
"But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful."
Of course the Christians, and the pagans and the Jews might raise an objection. Hey how do we fit into this great plan?

Samir Selmanovic in his book, It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, writes:

“Whenever a creature claims to have an exclusive grasp of God, someone gets hurt.” P. 141.

Samir Selmanovic is a minister in New York City. His book is a plea for religions to find a way to be good for all people. Rather than to see ourselves as a blessing to others (as long as "they" become like "us"), our evolution will require us to recognize that others are a blessing as they are.

The only God worth worshiping is a God that is outside of our religious boundaries. He writes:

‘Each of our three Abrahamic religions makes two claims. First is the claim we agree on: “God is One.” Second is the claim we deny we are making: “We are in charge of God....” Quietly, over the ages, our religions have colonized the name of God and become God management systems.” P. 91.
There is a way to come to terms with these exclusive texts. In fact, there are many ways. Throughout history we have changed the way we read texts. We do it because we read it with “the other” and the other becomes a subject engaged with us rather than an object..

Selmanovic, speaking of the exclusive texts I mentioned from all three monotheistic religions, writes:
“…the meaning of these texts will change if they are read in the presence of the other….when their eyes look into ours, the life context of our interpretation will change and so will the interpretation of the text. Not just the tenor of it but its basic logic. When God visits us through the other, we are awakened and begin to feel what we could not feel before, we see what we could not see before, and we think what we could not think before. In the presence of the other, everything changes.” P. 261.
That may be the central theme of his book.

The "other" is really us.

Only with that recognition will our religions be a blessing.

There have been harsh and I think deserved criticisms of religion surfacing these days. The title alone of Christopher Hitchens' book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything makes the point rather clearly.

I think Hitchens is absolutely partially right. When he is right, he is right absolutely. It is certainly not difficult to find examples that prove Hitchens’ thesis.

But he is not totally right. It is authors like the gracious Selmanovic who have allowed doubt, love, and life to shape his religion into something life affirming for everyone.

In regards to being right, Selmanovic includes this poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai entitled: “The Place Where We Are Right:”
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
in the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow,

And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
I titled the sermon, “I Want to be An Ancestor.” I heard this statement from Nancy Ellen Abrams, author of the book, The View from The Center of the Universe. It was a phrase that jolted me a bit.

The promise of many descendants is not automatic. She was not referring to her own biological offspring. She was talking about the survival of the human race itself.

  • Will we have descendants?
  • Will there be in the future people who look back to this time and to us as ancestors?

Implied in this desire is that the actions we make today may influence whether or not we do have descendants. Certainly not everything is up to human agency. Even with our best intentions we may make decisions that end up doing more harm than good.

Yet the statement, “I want to be an ancestor” affirms that we do have some choice. Our future is not fated. It is not predestined. We are not programmed for destruction or for glory. We have a choice to participate consciously in life.

Perhaps that is really what is being asked of us: to be conscious of the moment in which we live and to have an intent for the life and well-being of future generations.

According to the Great Binding Law, the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations, we find that crucial ethic:
“In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
I think that statement should have the authority of religious dogma. It should be the creed of every religious group. It should be the pledge of allegiance that every schoolchild recites in the morning. It should be the mission statement of every educational and political institution and the guiding principle for every corporation.
“In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
Just to be conscious of it might be enough to tip us toward life rather than death.

We can read the story of Abraham in a narrow, provincial manner as the promise of real estate by Bronze Age deity to a particular tribe. In one sense that is exactly what it was. But the passage can have a more than that meaning. We can read it as promise of life and the inspiration to creativity for all people on this globe regardless of religion, or nationality, or ethnicity.

We can read the story of Jesus who wishes to gather his brood under his wing as another story that promotes Christian exclusivism. Everybody will be gathered up by our Jesus. Or we can read it as a symbol of compassion and security and the inspiration to make justice, unity, and peace for all people of Earth regardless of our divisions.

We can prove Christopher Hitchens right again and again that religion poisons everything, or we can discover the wisdom, beauty, and poetry from of all of our varied and rich religious traditions and use them to serve life,
to serve all of life,
and to serve life seven generations to come.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Meaning of Life, Part 49

On the Sabbath try and make no noise that

goes beyond your

Cries of passion between lovers
are exempt.

God's Whole Family

More Light Presbyterians is posting the video, God's Whole Family on Youtube.

I posted links to parts
one and two earlier in this post, To Those Who Work For Justice.

Here are parts
three and four.

These videos show why it is important for congregations to state their welcome to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

Affiliating with
More Light Presbyterians can change and enrich your congregation's ministry.

On May 12th, 2008, the congregation I presently serve affiliated with both More Light Presbyterians and with
Covenant Network of Presbyterians.

Here is the statement we released after that affiliation and published on our
web page.
On May 12th, 2008, the Session of the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tennessee, by a unanimous vote, affiliated with More Light Presbyterians and with the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. First Presbyterian of Elizabethton is a progressive congregation that has a range of social justice ministries, while embracing scholarship, science, and the insights from the world’s religions.

We are an inclusive, welcoming congregation for all people regardless of race, ethnic identity, economic status, sexual orientation, and gender identity. In a climate of discrimination within the church against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, First Presbyterian affirms the mission of More Light Presbyterians:

"Following the risen Christ, and seeking to make the Church a true community of hospitality, the mission of More Light Presbyterians is to work for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA)."

First Presbyterian in a time of division affirms the inclusive vision and unity of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians:

"The Covenant Network of Presbyterians is a broad-based, national group of clergy and lay leaders working for a church that is simultaneously faithful, just, and whole. We seek to support the mission and unity of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in a time of potentially divisive controversy. We intend to articulate and act on the church's historic, progressive vision and to work for a fully inclusive church. We are committed to finding a way both to live out the graciously hospitable gospel we have received and to live together with all our fellow members in the PC(USA)."

First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton is a member church of Holston Presbytery and works with its sister congregations in cooperative ministry and witness while affirming the mission of Holston Presbytery:
* To proclaim Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; * To serve Christ by helping Presbyterian congregations within its boundaries to serve Him; * To coordinate the mission to which the Presbytery itself is called; and * To interpret the work and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for its own members and for all others in this region.
We include the following statement on the cover of our bulletin:
First Presbyterian invites you to become a part of our fellowship as we worship God and serve others in the spirit of Jesus Christ. With a commitment to achieving a just and peaceful world community our congregation welcomes those of every age, gender, sexual orientation, race and ethic identity.
This isn't the end of a process of welcome. It is only the beginning. We are on a journey to live out our statements of welcome, to name our own prejudices, and to work together to break down all walls of division. We are thrilled that our declaration of welcome has resulted in the inclusion of people who swore they would never darken a church door again. We have a long way to go. I personally am grateful to be a part of a congregation that is willing to take the first steps.

Second Amen-ment

This article was in the Faith section of today's Johnson City Press.
SMITHFIELD, N.C. — Vickie Jordan and her husband, Eddie, were all set to open a gun store in Smithfield, but they were missing one thing: the name. “I went to bed one night and was real apprehensive because we couldn’t come up with a name,” Vickie Jordan recalled.

When she finally got to sleep, she said, she dreamed that God told her to name it after the Second Amendment — the constitutional right to bear arms — but to call it the Second Amen-ment Gun Shop.
“I said, ‘All right, Lord, I get the picture’,” Vickie Jordan said.

The name fit well: Her husband is an evangelist and pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Selma. And when he’s not preaching, he can be found at the shooting range with his son, Blake, who manages the new store.

“A lot of people make fun of me — a Bible in one hand, a .44 in the other,” Eddie Jordan said. “I sort of turned a hobby into a business.” The Second Amen-ment Gun Store opened last month and is among the few places in Johnston County to buy a handgun.

Walmart sells guns for hunting, the Jordans said, but the big retailer doesn’t have handguns, which have proven popular with
customers seeking a weapon for target practice or protection.

Second Amen-ment also has a full line of shotguns, rifles and sights for hunting, and the Jordans are planning to get turkey guns in time for turkey hunting season. The store also sells ammunition and can do special orders as well as legal transfers of weapons purchased online.
“We want to make it a one-stop shop for all hunters and shooters,” Eddie Jordan said.

He hopes to attract the large number of people who obtain concealed-carry permits from the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office.
Eddie Jordan said he wants to send his son to gunsmithing school so the business can offer repairs as well as sales. In the long term, he envisions opening a shooting range.
It is obvious that true believers need more guns. When your superstitions are not convincing on their own, people need a little persuasion. Amen?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Meaning of Life, Part 48

It's a bit of a flimflam on the part of pastors, Bible teachers, and true believers when they urge us to "obey the Bible"--by which they mean trying to do what the Bible says. Although many claim to try, they are never able to succeed! Here is why. The Bible is an ancient book describing the origins, history, and faiths of two different antiquated religions, both of which are, in turn, quite different from their modern counterparts. I am not saying the Bible is without value, or that nothing can be learned from these antique religions. There are many valuable lessons for moderns to take from the ancient Judeo-Christian traditions that comprise the Bible, but directions from God on how life should be lived in the modern world are not among them....

....There are ways of reading the Bible other than as a collection of divine mandates. For example, the Bible addresses human issues with which modern society still struggles: guilt, fear of death, moral failure (what the Bible calls "sin"), acceptance (that is, "forgiveness"), wholeness (that is, "salvation"), life's purpose, etc. But one must pierce through the literal words to come to grips with the existential substance of the concepts. In the light of history their questions are frequently more helpful than their answers.
--Charles W. Hedrick, "Obeying the Bible is a Bad Idea" The Fourth R, March-April 2010

Tartuffe: Born Again

My lovely and I are going to see Tartuffe: Born Again tonight. It looks like an interesting show. The person who adapted the 17th century original to a modern setting has helped the students with the production.

It runs through Sunday. Check the
ETSU theater website for details and to order tickets!

Check out the story in the East Tennessean.

My friends, are you prepared to meet the Lord?" asks Tartuffe, to begin the second act of ETSU's production of "Tartuffe: Born Again."

"Tartuffe: Born Again" is being performed by the ETSU Division of Theatre & Dance and opens Thursday, Feb. 18 at ETSU's Bud Frank Theatre.

"The performances should leave audiences looking at their own character flaws and the disconnect between what we say and what we do," says Patrick Cronin, director and head of the Theatre and Dance Division.

Originally written in France by Molière in 1664, "Tartuffe" is about religious hypocrisy and how people worship false prophets. Singer, actor, playwright and friend of Cronin, Freyda Thomas, has adapted the play in "Tartuffe: Born Again," to have meaning in today's society.

"I thought it would be a terrific update with all the televangelists," says Thomas, from her Pennsylvania home.

"Born Again" takes place in Baton Rouge, La., in the 1980s. Tartuffe, a popular televangelist, takes advantage of a family that thinks he can do no wrong.

"I think it is also about how our obsession with celebrity and cult heroes such as 'Jon & Kate Plus 8' and other false idols," says Cronin. "It is about a very serious subject, but it is also drop-dead funny … Even though the show is not one the audience will be familiar with, audiences should attend for the same reasons they went to 'Avatar' - to have fun and expand their world."

Thomas altered the ending of the play to modernize it, as well as changing the characters slightly from Molière. Otherwise, the play is very similar to the original "Tartuffe," even in the writing style of rhymed verse.

"The most challenging part of directing this play is helping the actors find a way to be comfortable with the rhymed verse," Cronin says. "The hardest part for the actors is learning a lot of lines and learning to be true to the character."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Not Your Father's Presbyterians

It looks like I will be interim volunteer staff for Presbyterian Student Fellowship at ETSU for a little while longer.

So I
created a blog to put up the schedule and other tidbits. If you are an ETSU student you really ought to check out Presbyterian Campus Ministry.

The powers had better find some money to hire a real campus minister.

Otherwise I am
in da house.

And I am making nachos and talking about the historical Jesus with everyone this coming Tuesday night at seven.

You are welcome (and we mean it) regardless of religious beliefs including having none.

Come see us!

Meaning of Life, Part 47

From this it follows that as truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother. Our Father wills, our Mother works, our good Lord the Holy Spirit confirms. And therefore it is our part to love our God in whom we have our being, reverently thanking and praising him for our creation, mightily praying to our Mother for mercy and pity, and to our Lord the Holy Spirit for help and grace. For in these three is all our life….

And so Jesus is our true Mother in nature by our first creation, and he is our true Mother in grace by his taking our created nature. All the lovely works and all the sweet loving offices of beloved motherhood are appropriated to the second person, for in him we have this godly will, whole and safe forever, both in nature and in grace, from his own goodness proper to him.

I understand three ways of contemplating motherhood in God. The first is the foundation of our nature’s creation; the second is his taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins; the third is the motherhood at work. And in that, by the same grace, everything is penetrated, in length and in breadth, in height and in depth without end; and it is all one love….

The mother’s service is nearest, readiest and surest: nearest because it is most natural, readiest because it is most loving, and surest because it is truest.
--Julian of Norwich, Showings (Long Text, chs. 59-60)

Homo Flexibilis

Our March newsletter will hit the press soon. Readers of Shuck and Jive get a preview of my little tome. Here'tis:

Dear Friends,

Our Thursday reading group is making its way through
The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive a Volatile Earth by Dianne Dumanoski.

In her chapter entitled, “A Stormworthy Lineage,” she writes how human beings evolved (culturally and biologically) toward flexibility in the face of dramatic environmental change. For example we learned to cook food which allowed for our bodies to spend their energy developing larger brains (as opposed to digestion) which in turn enabled us to make tools and so forth to adapt to changes. The larger the brain, the more likely we can adapt to climate change.

Her point is that if human civilization is going to survive we are going to need to be flexible and to let go of patterns and values that will lead to our destruction. The cultural patterns that enabled us to survive can also work against us. She quotes anthropologist Paul Bohannan:

As conditions change, any religious explanations or political convictions that stifle thought and preclude questioning become deadly. When that happens, the very culture that helped its people to solve whatever problem they in fact solved becomes a trap that destroys everything their ancestors worked for. P. 127
Dumanoski goes on to write:
At such times of change, people must be willing to examine the fundamental unspoken premises that underlie their culture and beware of continuing to promote cultural values that are no longer fit for the world they are living in. P. 127
We have changed our cultural values many, many times. That is how homo sapiens (we should really be called homo flexibilis) have adapted. She writes:
At the moment, however, our current civilization—which originated in the West but has come to dominate the world through the global spread of its economic system, technology, and values—seems caught in such a cultural trap; it is drawing us deeper and deeper into trouble. We exhibit an alarming unwillingness to admit that the world has changed and to recognize the dangerous folly of business as usual. Our way of life has been unsustainable for some time, and the world is unraveling around us, yet we are loath question the goals and values of the modern cultural experiment that put us into ever grater jeopardy. There is reason to despair at our failure of imagination, at our inability to conceive that this modern culture is not the only or best way of being human. P. 128.
It would seem, then, that the highest goal of a church or religious group in our time is to question assumptions as opposed to promoting beliefs. We need to challenge the unspoken religious, economic, and political premises that seem to be directing us to collapse. In discovering what these premises might be, we could invoke the spiritual practice of awakening and consciousness raising that spiritual leaders in all of our wisdom traditions taught us.

We are summoned to wake up and to speak our truths. Discovering images, parables, and metaphors that evoke clarity about our situation as well as what it means to be human is the
via creativa or the spiritual path of creativity. We need to trust these images and to trust ourselves to speak them even when they seem odd or unconventional.

Dumanoski and others are telling us that we are not going to solve or fix climate change. The suburban consumer driven lifestyle is unraveling. We are in for a ride. However, human beings have weathered such storms before. Adults have but one task. We need to prepare our children for a volatile Earth.

Children born today are going to be the ones to remake civilization. We need courageously to acknowledge that change is coming, to learn how our ancestors weathered change, and to teach our children to trust and to develop creativity, flexibility, and imagination.

I can’t imagine any more important task for a church community. Can you?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Proud of My Peeps

In Tuesday's Johnson City Press, two FPCE folks had letters published. This was in response by a request from the paper regarding Don't Ask Don't Tell. Wise words by these wise women:
Members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community should be given the opportunity to serve their country openly. Anything less is discrimination, end of argument.

It is also a ridiculous waste of money to fire those who have attempted to follow the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

As of January 2009, 13,000 highly qualified men and women have been fired from the military since DADT was implemented in 1993.

It costs about $70,000 to get a soldier through basic training alone. Multiply that by 13,000 and we’ve wasted more than $900 million at the very least. This doesn’t include any additional training, equipment or support for highly trained individuals such as those in special ops, interpreters and officers.

The only argument left for keeping GLBT people out of the army is the “hostile work environment” argument. I recommend asking female soldiers if they have ever been exposed to a hostile work environment from their heterosexual male peers and superiors. According to the Pentagon, one-third of women in 2008 said they had. In 2007, 2,688 sexual assaults were reported.

Perhaps we should also ban heterosexual men from serving in the military. It makes just as much sense as banning gays or lesbians.


That's our beloved Snad. And from our beloved Sandy:
People used to say that blacks could not serve with whites or the structure of the army would break down. Then people used to say that women could not serve because their male comrades would be too worried about them to fight effectively. Well, those myths have been debunked and it’s time to debunk the current myth.

There is no reason gays cannot serve side by side with their heterosexual comrades. People who claim that it will interfere with the effectiveness of the unit are looking at the world through bigoted lenses. The only people who are upset are those who don’t like gays.

Why should anyone care if the guy holding a gun next to him is Jewish or black or gay? Or if the guy holding a gun next to him is a girl? As long as he or she can shoot straight and do the job, that’s all that matters.

Science has proved that gay people, just like heterosexual people, are born that way. They are not “evil” or “sinners.” You can be sure that if your god hates the same people that you do then he was created in your image.

Anyone who wants to treat a class of people differently because they belong to that class can only be described one way: bigoted.

I applaud everyone who wants to serve their country and it’s nobody’s business who sleeps with whom.



LGBTieS Comes Out!

The ETSU student newspaper, The East Tennessean had a front page article about LGBTieS, the student-run gay-straight alliance group. This group does critically important work on the campus of ETSU:
LGBTieS, ETSU's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender student organization, recently held their Coming Out event on campus for ETSU students and community members to gather together to discuss their personal coming out stories and other related experiences.

The organization's main goal is to create a space where people are comfortable being themselves and sharing their life experiences, said LGBTieS President Evan Baker.

"Coming out is a momentous step for each and every member of the LGBTQ population, and no matter if the experience was positive or negative, we all deserve a platform to share our own unique story," Baker said.

Wednesday night that platform was Room 227 in Rogers-Stout Hall which was packed with more than 20 individuals sharing stories of personal discovery and expression.

"It was great that no one really had horrific tales to share, detailing being kicked out of their home or disowned," said Baker. "You can't pretend that those things do not happen, but it is also good to see that such a large group can all have relatively positive stories to share."

Everyone in the room shared their experiences coming out to their families and friends and while some have come completely out to their loved ones, others are still working on telling everyone in their lives who they truly are. Despite being in a diverse and educated college environment, the ETSU students who shared their stories at Wednesday's night event are proof that diversity and sexual orientation are still issues for some of our peers.

"Coming out is easier for our generation but only to a certain extent," said Baker. "Though I did tell a few people that I was gay while still in high school, I would never have been able to be out to everyone. "

LGBTieS is an organization that is working to bring acceptance and tolerance to ETSU and the local community. They meet Wednesday nights at 7:15 in Rogers-Stout Hall Room 227. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or straight - everyone is welcome to attend meetings and get involved in promoting equality in the community.
LGBTieS rocks. Check them on Facebook. While you are there, find PFLAG Tri-Cities!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

John Knox Says Yes to Gay Ministers

Well at least one. Openly gay ministerial candidate, Scott Anderson, was approved by a vote of 81-25 on Saturday. Scott squeezes through on ye olde scruple rule. Interestingly, Scott was on the Theological Task Force that introduced Mr. Scruple to the PCUSA.

The presbytery of John Knox voted that Scott's scruple was just fine with them. According to the executive presbyter of John Knox, Rev. Ken Meunier:

"Not everyone is on the same page with this issue, but a great number of people have been very impressed with Scott Anderson's gifts for ministry. I believe the vote reflects a desire of persons within the Presbytery to make room for a variety of voices and opinions within the church, and to exercise biblical forbearance toward persons with whom they disagree."
Apparently some busybodies think forbearance is not very biblical and will challenge the decision.

John Knox could not be reached for comment.

Creative Re-membering: A Sermon

Creative Re-Membering
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
February 21st, 2010

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Luke 4:1-13

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Since I attended Baptist and Pentecostal churches growing up, Lent was not on the radar. I secretly envied my Catholic neighbor and best friend because he seemed to have all kinds of churchy parties, events, and saints. We were pretty much a dry bunch in comparison.

The big question around their house at this time of year was what will you give up for Lent? When I told my mom I was going to give up vegetables for Lent she wasn’t amused.

“We don’t do that,” she said.

After becoming Presbyterian, I was introduced to Lent. Kind of Lent Lite. Some people get into it and some don’t. Those who were Presbyterian before the 1970s and the liturgical renewal probably didn’t do much for Lent either. Our Presbyterian forebears were highly suspicious of any kind of “Romanist” activity. They didn’t even celebrate Christmas.

Nowadays we Presbyterians do acknowledge Lent. We have the ashes on the communion table, purple paraments, a song about Jesus walking the lonesome valley, and a reading from the lectionary (definitely not a Puritan practice),

Recognizing Lent is a way to connect to our deeper past. We now realize that our Puritan ancestors might have been a bit zealous in stripping away all of the traditions. We have a better sense of our history than they did and now know that in the early centuries the church developed this period of Lent leading up to Easter. It was a time for those who wished to join the Christian faith to be instructed in preparation for baptism on Easter Sunday.

Lent is 40 days. It begins with Ash Wednesday, skipping Sundays, and ends the day before Easter. It is a period of fasting, of prayer, and of discernment. The foundational story for Lent is the story of Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.

This is probably a fictional story. It was a creation of the Gospel writers to bring to mind Moses and the Hebrew children wandering forty years in the wilderness in preparation for entry into the Promised Land. That, too, probably, is a fictional story, created a few hundred years before Jesus.

A fascinating book on the creation of these stories in the Hebrew Scriptures is by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. It is called The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and The Origin of Its Sacred Texts. A generation or two ago, scholars viewed the Old Testament as fairly reliable history. Nowadays, scholars are discovering that it is more likely a creative fiction. Not history remembered, but memory created.

To put it bluntly: Moses and the Hebrew children escaping from Pharaoh and wandering in the wilderness and receiving the ten commandments and entering the Promised Land and killing off all the natives. All of it is fiction. None of it happened. Truth be told, I am a little relieved. I never liked the stories about killing off the natives anyway. The rest of it seemed too fantastical to be credible and that is turning out to be the case.

What is fascinating is how these storytellers created their history. They created their memory. They created their meaning. They created their identity. They created their god. Why did they tell their stories in this way? What did they want to communicate about themselves? Those, to me, are the interesting questions.

The gospel writers were likewise creative. Drawing on the literary motifs of the Hebrew Scriptures and from pagan stories, they created the stories and the Story of Jesus. I don’t think they created him out of whole cloth. There is an historical person in there somewhere. But for the most part, it appears that Jesus is a creative construction. He was the symbol of meaning. He was the product of creative re-membering.

Again, you don’t have to believe a thing I tell you. In fact, you shouldn’t. Check it out for yourself. Certainly there are many who disagree with me. But as scientists tell us honestly what they observe about Earth and its life, so should preachers be honest about what we observe about our religious texts and history.

I might be wrong. I might and likely will change my mind as I learn new things but I won’t tell you something I don’t think is true for the sake of propping up some kind of belief.

Let’s check out this story of Jesus in the desert. The details of the story, the three temptations, are found in Matthew and in Luke, but not in Mark. Possibly, there was an earlier source for these stories. It is also possible that one of the gospel writers created the story and the other copied it with slight modifications.

For both Matthew and Luke, the story tells us about the character of Jesus. It also provides a model for those who identify as followers of Jesus. This is what it means to live with integrity and authenticity. These are the temptations and the desires that will lead to an inauthentic life, according to the gospel writers. The wise person will recognize them and choose a different course of action.

Jesus in the wilderness is a story of meaning. It is a creative re-membering. A story doesn’t have to be historical to have meaning. Quite the opposite. It is the stuff of legends that provide stories that help us understand, make sense, and re-member our lives.

These forty days of Lent, for us, if we wish, can be a time in which we bring to consciousness, recognize, and name, the temptations or desires that keep us from authenticity and integrity. Taking some time for critical reflection, or deciding upon some kind of devotional practice, meditation, or act of service, or an act of negation (giving up something for Lent), can remind us to live with a deeper sense of reverence.

This is not about being somber or serious or depressing. It is a reminder to be vital. We re-member our vitality. We have ashes on our communion table. They are not there for morbid effect. We bring to mind the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” to remind us of the most true, real thing in life—our mortality. One day we will not be. We will be as we were before we were born. Our bodies will be some other critter’s lunch.

Now whether or not our consciousness survives our death in some way, I don’t know. I remain blissfully agnostic. I don’t insist either way. There are others more certain than I. Regardless of what happens beyond this life, still, this life is unique, precious, and finite. We are not coming around this way again.

The ashes remind us then of our vitality in the present. We are alive right now. One day we will not be, but now we are. The tests, temptations, or desires that the Satan shows to Jesus are really what we succumb to most of the time. They are the busy-ness of our sense experience. The busy-ness of our brains keep us from noticing the blade of grass.

That is why our poets and spiritual leaders are constantly harping on us to notice the blade of grass, the single flower, the landscape, the roughness of our hands, the warmth of the sun, the wetness of the snow, the smile of our lover, and so on.

Take it in. Take it all in. Notice it. Don’t let it slip by without a thank you. Some times to appreciate the present we need a stark reminder of our future, or our possible future. If you are up for it, a good book for Lent is Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road. Talk about ashes to ashes and dust to dust. It is a post-apocalyptic novel. We aren’t told what happens except that humanity made some pretty dumb choices and wiped out nearly all of life.

The main character and his son are walking on an abandoned road. Everything is dusty gray. No birds, no grass, no bugs, nothing. It is a very, very sober novel. The characters don’t even have names: man, boy.

In one scene the father finds a newspaper in an abandoned gas station. It is a newspaper obviously from the time before the catastrophe. As he is reading the newspaper and all of the events, news, advertisements, and so forth, he thinks to himself:

How quaint were our concerns.

I think Cormac McCarrthy is a genius. He says it all in a few words.

How quaint were our concerns.

You can read that in a couple of ways. You can read it as a judgment. We weren’t taking seriously what we were doing. Our concerns were not related to the reality we needed to engage.

Or you can read it nostalgically. How wonderful were those days in which we had the luxury to be quaint. Worrying over school board meetings, soccer practice, the colors of flowers for the church, the budget at work, all in comparison to ashes are quaint concerns.

That isn’t a judgment. It is a recognition that all of life, even its hassles, is fragile and precious and worthy of notice.

Life is short. Notice it.

Let’s look at the temptations in particular. This is a story. The character Jesus has divine power. This is not about the historical Jesus. When we read stories of the gods we are projecting on the big screen our own internal struggles. This story is symbolic about our own tests, temptations and desires.

Jesus is hungry. The satan or the adversary tells him to turn the stone to bread. He has the power. Jesus answers that we do not live by bread alone. The point is not whether we can or cannot turn bread to stone, but whether or not using our energy and power to satisfy our sense desires is our highest purpose.

Jesus answers that we do not live by bread alone. Life is not about satisfying our sense desires alone. Yes we need bread to eat. But if we focus only on getting these things for ourselves we will lose the capacity for justice and compassion for others.

The satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. The test here is the desire for power and control. It shows lack of trust. Desire for power at its root is a desire for security. Unless I control you, you will destroy me. Powerful military nations are especially susceptible to this temptation. Unless we are the boss of the planet we are not safe.

Then the satan takes Jesus to top of the temple and says, “Jump!”

I am thinking that this temptation relates to a fear of not measuring up. Needing rescue. Needing external validation. “Prove you are the son of God,” says the satan. Prove you are a worthy human being. Jesus responds in essence that he doesn’t need to prove anything. Neither do we.

These tests are tests of integrity. Will we use our energy and our power to secure for ourselves at the expense of community, others, and the reverence for life? Authenticity for individuals is related to just and compassionate relationships with others.

These tests or temptations are temptations to be self-focused and distracted. They are temptations to live small, self-absorbed lives. They keep us from cooperation and collaboration with others. They keep us from living peacefully within our own skin.

I don’t claim that my commentary on these temptations is correct. In fact, the point of them is to open up conversation. If I might be so bold as to give you an assignment, it is to talk about these tests over lunch today.

What do these tests relate to in our own lives as individuals, communities, nations, and the human species?

What are the temptations, desires, or tests that keep us from living authentically, that keep us from noticing life with awe and reverence?

What keeps us busy and preoccupied?

How might we instead creatively re-member who we are?

Even if just for a moment?

With that I wish for you a Holy Lent.

May this be a season of discernment, of renewal, of re-membering, and of vitality.

Let us pray.

Holy Spirit, you know what the world needs more than we do. It is for this reason and this reason alone that we meditate. Bring it swiftly, surely, and most harmoniously into the life of every living being.

Holy Spirit, you know what each of us needs more than we do. It is this reason and this reason alone that we meditate. Bring it swiftly, surely, and most harmoniously into each of our lives.

Peace, Peace, Authentic Peace.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Presbyterians Love Their Beads

The Mardi Gras party was most delightful. Check the pics!

Here are the queen, jester, and king...

I'm feelin' the love...

All smiles....

All the time...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Heaven Help Us

After our Mardi Gras party we will go to the sanctuary for a brief meditation time to prepare us for Lent. I think I'll play this tune from Ray Charles and Gladys Knight, Heaven Help Us

Heaven help the child who never had a home,
Heaven help the girl who walks the street alone
Heaven help the roses if the bombs begin to fall,
Heaven help us all.

Heaven help the black man if he struggles one more day,
Heaven help the white man if he turns his back away,
Heaven help the man who kicks the man who has to crawl,
Heaven help us all.

Heaven help us all, heaven help us all, help us all.
Heaven help us, Lord, hear our call when we call
Oh, yeah!

Heaven help the boy who won't reach twenty-one,
Heaven help the man who gave that boy a gun.
Heaven help the people with their backs against the wall,
Lord, Heaven help us all.

Heaven help us all, heaven help us all, heaven help us all, help us all.
Heaven help us, Lord, hear our call when we call.

Now I lay me down before I go to sleep.
In a troubled world, I pray the Lord to keep,
Keep hatred from the mighty,

And the mighty from the small,
Heaven help us all.
Oh, oh, oh, yeah!
Heaven help us all.

I'm a HOE!

I don't think I ever have received an award quite so tasty. I am speaking of course of the Ham of Excellence (HOE) bestowed upon me by Tracey the Southern Female Lawyer.

Pic of HOE at right.

She really wrote some nice things about me, and well, shucks, I am just verklempt.

To show that I am a ham I shamelessly will re-post some of what she wrote:

This man has not only challenged my thinking on what organized religion can do (i.e., something other than judgment, inadvertent wrong, and outright evil), he shows just what good we can attain if we have the balls and conviction to be unconventional and honest. Did you ever think you could walk into a southern church – hell, any church – and hear a sermon on “Better Living Through Evolution?” How many ministers do you know who are active in PFLAG? When was the last time you saw your preacher at a pro-healthcare reform rally?
She doesn't even stop with that!
It’s enough to make a southern female lawyer think about going to church. Which, as someone who has never gone to any church/temple/religious gathering in her entire life and is fairly certain said building will erupt in flames should she enter, is a pretty big freaking deal.
Obviously that made my Fat Tuesday. I should add, however, that there are other HOE preachers and churches filled with HOEs all over this great country.

You just have to know how to sniff out that pork.

Thanks, Tracey!!

Fat Tuesday!

Party tonight at FPC Elizabethton!

The weather is fine. Some light flurries is all. The church has been decorated and looks great! Join us at 6 p.m. Invite your friends.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Use Your Voice

The haters will certainly come out for this opportunity, so I hope the lovers will too. The Johnson City Press is asking its readership to send letters voicing opinions on Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
President Barack Obama has informed members of Congress that he plans to scrap a controversial policy barring gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was adopted during the Clinton administration as a means of allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the armed services as long as they kept their sexual orientation to themselves. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen told Congress the armed services will no longer use assertions by sources outside the military as the basis of investigations into a service member’s sexual orientation, and that only top-level officers will be allowed to authorize discharges.

Those changes accompany a recent poll among service members that show opposition to gays serving openly in the military has declined dramatically. The Military Times newspapers reported last week that an exclusive survey of some 3,000 active-duty troops found opposition has dropped from 65 percent in 2004 to 51 percent today.

...Tell us what you think. Should gays and lesbians be allowed to serve openly in the military? Send your comments to Mailbag, P.O. Box 1717, Johnson City, TN 37605-1717, or mailbag [at] johnsoncitypress [dot] com 
OK, beloveds, get those letters written!

To Those Who Work for Justice...

As my congregation is proudly affiliated with More Light Presbyterians, I thought it would be helpful to point you toward a video that tells what this organization is all about.

Michael Adee has posted parts 1 and 2 of "God's Whole Family" on Youtube.

Part 1
Part 2

This video will give you a history of the equality and justice movement in the PC (U.S.A.) and why it is important
now to take a stand for full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

We are thrilled that this past week to welcome
seven new More Light Churches!

It is one thing for a church to say it welcomes everyone. Maybe, maybe not. When you declare that you are fully inclusive, affirming, and active for equality specifically and openly, you are forced to stand by what you say.

I am proud of my congregation for taking this step and for all the other Presbyterian congregations who are walking the talk for equality.

Find a list of inclusive PC (U.S.A.) congregations...

We are also affiliated with Covenant Network of Presbyterians.

This organization also works for the full equality of LGBT people in the life of the church. They are excited about their new web page.
Check it!

Covenant Network, More Light Presbyterians, That All May Freely Serve, and The Witherspoon Society will be reporting the news, providing helpful commentary, and urging the PC (U.S.A.) toward justice as we prepare for the General Assembly in June.

This post is a shout out to all the staff and volunteers of the above organizations!

Love ya!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Better Living Through Evolution--A Sermon

Better Living Through Evolution
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 14th, 2010
Evolution Sunday

Luke 9:28-36
Bhagavad Gita 11:8-14

Welcome to Evolution Sunday. This is the fifth year this congregation has participated. Evolution Sunday is the brainchild of Michael Zimmerman, professor of biology at Butler University. He started the Clergy Letter Project. Since its inception in 2006, over 12,000 clergy have signed a letter stating their support of teaching evolution as a core component of human knowledge.

The idea of Evolution Sunday or Evolution Weekend is to devote the Sunday that is closest to Charles Darwin’s birthday to science and to evolution. My only lament is that Evolution Sunday comes but once per year. Like we are supposed to do with Christmas we should keep the warmth and wisdom of natural selection in our hearts year round.

One might ask what right have I to talk about evolution? I am not a scientist. That is true. I am a simple country preacher. But I don’t need to be a scientist to know that if I jump off of the roof of my house I will fall and hit the ground. My physics professor in college explained that to me. His name was Denny Lee. He said the reason that happens is because the earth sucks. That will happen again and again no matter how much I pray for angels to uphold me or how much I read my Bible.

He also explained those little white dots we see in the sky on a clear night. They are not gods. They are not spirits of ancestors. They are not holes in the blue dome that covers the earth. They are not space aliens. They are stars. They are balls of fire like our sun but a long way away. They will be there and from our vantage point appear to move whether we pray to them or not.

Our sun while we say it rises in the morning and sets at night we don’t really mean it. There is no deity who rides his fiery chariot across the sky each day. In fact our little blue sphere of a home rotates respective to the sun and revolves around it completing its journey once per year.

I knew these things before my professor told us in his own witty way. We don’t need to be scientists to know these things. It is good to know these things. It is good to teach them to our children.

If you were to ask me how gravity works or to provide calculations predicting the motions of Earth and the stars I couldn’t do it. But there are folks who work on those puzzles. They will do so without needing to bring God into it. Many such astronomers and physicists have done a lot of work on these questions. They have come up with some good things to know.

Scientists have been able to date the beginning of the universe to about 13.7 billion years ago and the date of Earth to 4.5 billion years or so. Our earliest fossils, micro bacteria, I have heard, are about 3.5 billion years old. Life that today includes ants, dung beetles, grass, cabbage, bonobos, bananas, and you and me are the twists and turns of natural processes.

If you were to ask me details of how this works I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But there are folks who work on these puzzles. They will do so without needing to bring God into it. This science is public and cumulative and open to anyone who wishes to pick up a book and read. A good one by the way is the latest by Richard Dawkins called The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

Thankfully, this information is becoming more and more available to non-scientists and of course, most importantly, to children who are going to need to think critically and understand how life works to address the challenges they will face.

So what does it mean that a recent Harris Poll tells us 54 percent of U.S. adults believe that humans did not develop from earlier species? To scare you further that is up from 46 percent in 1994.

It means that we have work to do. I think it is an invitation for us to be more forthcoming and public about the importance of science. This includes being forthcoming about our own religious texts and how they are human products and how religion itself is a product of cultural evolution.

Let’s look at it from a different angle. This creationist hoopla (you know a 6,000 year old Earth, Cain and Abel riding dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden, the superstition of intelligent design) may be a good thing. Because of it we now have stacks of books on evolution and science for the non-specialist. Controversy can help move things forward.

A book I recommend is by a professor at Binghamton University. He has started an Evolutionary Studies program there. His name is David Sloan Wilson, His book is Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives.

Wilson is an evolutionist. He is of the view that evolution is not merely a specialized academic theory for biologists. All fields including human behavior, literary studies, religion, art, music, and psychology, can be enhanced by seeing them through an evolutionary perspective.

Let’s take a look at a famous text in the Bible. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes:
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
I know this piece of scripture has resonated with many people. We all know that feeling of not doing what we want to do and doing what we don’t want to do. We probably know the feeling of getting down on ourselves for it. We have said perhaps about ourselves something like, “Wretched man [or woman] that I am.”

Paul doesn’t specify what sin dwelt within him. But we can probably guess. It likely had to do with sex or food, our most powerful drives. Maybe he discovered a narcotic of some kind. Maybe some kind of personality trait such as temper.

But it is very possible that the "sin" that enslaved him was something his ancestors needed to survive. Our desire for sugar, fat, and salt is a carryover of what enabled our ancestors to survive when those things were in short supply, unlike today when what we call junk food is more plentiful that healthy food.

Paul need not think of himself as a wretched man filled with sin and evil. He is dancing with ghosts.

In David Sloan Wilson’s book he invites us to imagine a roomful of ballroom dancers. Each is dancing with an invisible partner. At the edge of a dance floor is a huge pit. The dancers fall into it one after another.

He uses that image to describe an environment that has changed but the organism behaves from old rules. This is like sea turtles that evolved to see reflected moonlight on the surface of the sea so when they are born on the beach they follow the light to the sea. But now with beach houses offering light, the baby sea turtles go the wrong way following the light of the beach houses to their death. They are dancing with ghosts as are many species especially as humans have changed their environments.

Human beings dance with ghosts as well. We continue old patterns, such as desiring and eating unhealthy food, even as our environment changed.

Paul is engaging unconsciously with desires that aren’t necessarily bad, just not helpful in the present. Knowing that doesn’t excuse it, nor does it prevent it. But it can lift that guilt and self-loathing. That is a lot. It can raise awareness of what was previously unconscious so that it loses its mystique and power.

If we can name it, we are more likely to tame it.

Evolutionary theory whether genetic evolution or cultural evolution could be the best thing we have going to explain who we are and why we are who we are. Understanding our ancestry including our deep ancestry can bring to consciousness aspects of our behavior that we couldn’t explain or that we explained by debasing ourselves or others.

Why do we dance? Did you know that dance is prior to language? Our earliest ancestors danced together in groups sometimes until exhaustion. They did it because that brought them together. It made them feel connected. Music and drumming and dancing. It is primal. It is before speech. Watch a one year old getting down to the rhythm of a washing machine and you know what I mean. Music and dance is universal. It is the activity that connects human beings, that allows us to cooperate and to praise one another.

I have a solution for the folks in congress. They need to take their shoes off and have a sock hop, dancing night and day until they fall exhausted. Now that is a filibuster.

Our two stories for today, one from the Bible and one from the Bhagavad Gita are legends. They are similar. Some people may think that what is important about these stories is that they are different. Not only different but folks may think that one story is superior or more true and so forth than the other.

I think it is more interesting to see what these two stories have in common. In each case the god is in human form and reveals to the people his true form. Jesus for Peter, James, and John, and Krishna for Arjuna.

Peter, James, and John see Jesus in white standing with Moses and Elijah. Arjuna sees Krishna as the embodiment of the universe. Dramatic visions. Then when it is done, they all are a bit stunned. In Jesus’ case a voice comes from heaven telling Peter, James, and John to do what Jesus tells them. Back to Earth. In Krishna’s case, Krishna tells Arjuna to do his duty. Back to Earth.

In other words the vision provides strength for the journey. It doesn’t solve their problems. It makes them aware of their connection. These stories are symbolic stories of the experience of insight. These are the ‘aha’ moments. “Oh, I get it now!” These stories symbolize awareness, consciousness, wonder, and awe.

Peter, James, John, and Arjuna still have to do their duty. They still have to live on Earth. But they do so with a heightened awareness. Today, in the place of gods, visions, and miracles, we have elegant theories of how things work. In the place of original sin and Satan we have a 3.5 billion year evolutionary process. We are different than each other and we are different than other species, but we are also alike. We share with all of life all the way back genetics and a creative process.

I think that is pretty amazing. Not only is that amazing, but if you will excuse the use of some spiritual words, it is enlightening and inspiring. It is amazing grace. Like Arjuna, Peter, James, and John, we still have to live in the world. We still have to do our duty whatever that duty might be, but we do it with a whole cloud of witnesses, an entire ancestral deep history of life surging through us.

We have no less experiences today that Peter, James, John, and Arjuna had. Our ancients told stories of gods, but it is even more amazing, far more amazing today. We can marvel at a beehive and know a little about their dance. We can see images of deep, deep space through images from the Hubble Telescope. Or we can lie on our backs and night and know that those lights are suns millions of light-years away. We can be aware that all the things we do and feel have a history, a deep history.

We belong here. On Earth. As Earthlings on our blue boat home.